Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego

Estancias and camelids

A 550km sprint across Tierra del Fuego to finish up with. There’s only really one route – since once you get to this point, you’re not going to be taking any detours. In any case, there’s not much to see until you are 100km from Ushuaia. The north of the island is flat plains of dry grass populated by sheep and dotted with the estancias of their owners. These vast ranches appear almost as towns in themselves and are clearly pretty wealthy.

There are absolutely no other settlements to speak of and so I decided to ride across relatively quickly; there wasn’t much else to do. I didn’t experience the absurdly strong winds that are common here and can make it impossible even to walk with the bike. Nevertheless, even a calm day on Tierra del Fuego demands some respect as the conditions can change rapidly. By this point, everyone you pass knows you’re nearly at the end and I got many more hoots and cheers than normal. They don’t know where you started, but it is a fair bet that your destination is Ushuaia – there is nowhere else to go.

The last day took me back into the mountains one last time. A final pass and then I came around a corner; the sign welcoming me Ushuaia took me by surprise. The end of my journey!

The scenery was not the most interesting, however I had some really memorable moments that kept me smiling. On day one, I completed the quadrillogy of South American quadropeds: llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and now, a guanaco. Then there was the final border crossing back into Argentina which involved riding past land mines (they really don’t like each other much down here) and passing a number of ‘Islas Malvinas Argentinas’ signs (Argentine Falklands – they don’t like us much either!)

The final pass

The last day took me back into the mountains one last time. A final pass and then I came around a corner; the sign welcoming me Ushuaia took me by surprise. The end of my journey!

It all happened so fast that I didn’t have the time to go through the emotions I was expecting though I suppose that in some ways a journey like this is always going to end in an anticlimax. I’m sitting at the computer in the rain in London writing this and it all seems a bit of a dream. I had an amazing experience, I pushed my physical and emotional boundaries and, most importantly have a very personal perspective on this remarkable continent.

What stands out? The landscapes without a doubt – the scale is bigger than I could possibly have imagined; the weather – I had just one week of rain in five months and still have the silly tan lines; the routine of riding, eating, sleeping, blogging and route-planning – better than any therapy. I could go on and on but my advice would remain the same: it’d be best for you just to go and experience it for yourself.

South America

Chile

Vocan Villarrica

Santiago: almost European

The spectacle didn’t end at the pass, the Chilean side was equally impressive and had the considerable benefit of being downhill. The road passes countless waterfalls cascading off the near-vertical cliffs from the snowfields above. Anywhere else, any one of these would have been a tourist attraction, here they just line the road.

At one point the road itself becomes the spectacle as it takes 27 turns down a steep hillside, quite unlike any road I’ve seen anywhere. All good things must come to an end of course, especially when they involve going downhill on a bike and the route flattens out at Los Andes. The ride into Santiago, though not as memorable, passes through some impressive landscapes.

Santiago itself is as first world a city as you’ll get in South America and has a spectacular setting. As with the Argentine towns though, there’s not much to keep you more than a day or two. I enjoyed the civilization, ate some good food and continued on my way. I rode south to Rancagua but soon realised that the roads here are rather busier than I’d been used to. I aimed to find a route that avoided the Panamericana and succeeded for a while but it became clear that this would be very difficult in the long run, every sign and everyone I asked just pointed me back to the obvious route south. As motorways go, it wasn’t bad to cycle on; wide shoulder, moderate traffic and some reasonable views. By the time I’d done 80km to Rancagua however, I decided that this wasn’t going to be much fun for the next week.

Riding on such a large road isolates you from your surroundings, taking away the very thing that is best about bicycle touring, the intimacy with the environment and people. I decided to take a bus.

The Chilean Lakes

I should have checked a weather forecast before taking the bus because, for the first time this trip, the weather gods scuppered my plans. I had ten days of constant, solid rainfall. I did ride 60 km out of Temuco in the direction of the national parks to a little place called Cunco, but the ride was not fun and anything not double wrapped in waterproof was soaked through. The thought riding on what I’d seen described as ‘terribly muddy’ road and then camping was short-lived and I came to my senses, riding direct to Villarrica.

I was actually glad to be sitting still for a week and getting some rest. I discovered, as so often happens after stopping, that I was rather more exhausted than expected. Sleep was been much appreciated and I also enjoyed the excellent company in the hostel, from the Brazilian adventure-racers to a number of friendly Swiss travellers. I took some day rides which were fun, particularly without the trailer, and allowed me to practice a variety of methods of crossing the raging torrents that had sprung up everywhere. Once again, this usually involved getting rather wet.

After about a week, I got my first glimpse of the 2800 m volcano that towers over the town, a mountain I was beginning to doubt existed. Taking advantage of the conditions, I booked a trip to climb it with three other travellers from my hostel. We chose the cheap agency which may have been a mistake but £25 to climb a snow-covered active volcano seemed like a bargain. Of course, if we had paid more, our boots would have been considerably more comfortable and we might have got some waterproof gear, but the essence of the trip would have been the same. We still got to stand on the edge of the crater and inhale sulphur fumes to our heart’s content.

The real Chilean highlight was about to begin: the Carretera Austral.

We were dropped off at 1400 m, right on the snowline with a further 1400 m to climb to the summit. We donned our crampons, were given a 20 second explanation in Spanish of how to use the ice-axe and set off. After this long in South America, I was merely suprised that there was a briefing at all. In reality the climb was a long hard walk. There are no ledges to fall off, no crevasses and the whole thing is covered in nice snow for the crampons. Some parts were quite steep but nothing that couldn’t be skied down. Nevertheless, in the back of ones mind is the thought that this is an active volcano.

I met Malin in Valdivia, we saw the botanic gardens and the sea lions at the fish market, got engaged and headed off south! The lakes were nice, it’s true, and the volcanoes were spectacular, but the real Chilean highlight was about to begin: the Carretera Austral.

Carretera Austral

Pinochet’s legacy for cycle tourists, this is a road that connects some very small towns in the south of Chile and was mainly built to prevent the Argentines claiming the land. It is in the middle of absolutely nowhere and has very little traffic. Perfect volcanoes, ancient forests, clear streams and huge waterfalls line the route. From January to March the road (and connecting ferries) are open all the way to Puerto Montt. We travelled in December and therefore took an overnight boat to Chaiten. We spent two nights camping in Park Pumalin, a remarkable private conservation project owned by an American. There was almost no-one there and we camped alone in two wonderful settings. We had no need for the covered campsites provided since the weather gods were now on my side and there was not a cloud to be seen.

Turning around and heading back through Chaiten, the Carretera Austral continued to be beautiful. In fact Malin and I became somewhat numbed to the standard level of prettiness. Fortunately there were many extraordinary things to make us stop and stare nonetheless. One night, we camped at Ventisquero Colgante in Quelat national park, a large glacier that overhangs the valley it used to occupy. It and the waterfall off it are spectacular, the water turning to snow on its route down, somewhat like a snow cannon. Our luck with the weather ran out when we reached the top of a 500 m climb in the rain, Malin’s stomach was giving her trouble and and we camped up there, basically in the clouds.

Having talked to other cyclists, we think that it always rains up there and apparently gets over 4000 mm precipitation annually. If we’d just freewheeled down the other side, we’d probably have had sunshine again. Nevertheless, we made it to Coyhaique. As we rode in and up from the coast, the landscape became drier. As we approached the town, the valleys became farmed and the road paved. We were at the end of our section of wilderness. The Carretera Austral does continue south but I didn’t have the time to ride it, needing to get home for to start work. Instead, I took a bus to Punta Arenas. A long bus, and one I would have rather avoided. Compromises must be made though, and the road’s still there. Maybe some day I’ll be back to ride it…

Tierra del Fuego | South America

Argentina

Ruta 40

The promised land

What a contrast! Argentina may not be the richest country in the world but in comparison to Bolivia, it is certainly a couple of steps up. The change at the border was marked, dusty, bumpy road became beautiful smooth tarmac. Suddenly, there were road signs. Riding a little further proved these to be accurate in terms of both direction and distance. Quite a novelty after the previous three months. Showers were hot, coke was cold. In short, the type of Utopia that I’d been longing for.

Interestingly, the people of obvious European ancestry weren’t confined to television and politics, they were real and walking the streets. Sometimes they even drove cars. The other major change was the descent off the altiplano. This occurs over the first 250 km or so. It wasn’t all good news as I had a stiff headwind, which I believe is common here. In fact, it was the norm on all the big descents. You start enjoying the freewheeling and then come afternoon a breeze builds and the road flattens and you have to pedal just to go down. Most frustrating!

Showers were hot, coke was cold. In short, the type of Utopia that I’d been longing for.

Almost all of Peru and Bolivia has been very dry, but shortly before the first major Argentine city of Jujuy (pronounced Hoo-hooee), I began to encounter trees and farms. From Jujuy, there is an old road that leads to the nearby city Salta which was an absolute delight and I’d highly recommend it if you are passing through. The traffic is all taken by a dual carriageway and there is a police checkpoint which seems to prevent most vehicles from taking the direct route. The narrow, but well-tarmaced route winds through damp forests and fields, past lakes and over some hills. They are definitely hills here, not mountains but there’s still some climbing to be done.

Cities and vineyards

It took me about two weeks of hard riding to reach Mendoza. I was really pushing to make up for the time I lost riding with the English guys in Bolivia and rode 100 to 170 km most days. The area is climatically a desert as it lies in the rain shadow of the Andes but in areas where there are settlements, the land has been irrigated for centuries. Using snow melt from the mountains, irrigation ditches criss-cross fields of vines and fruit orchards. It all makes for a schizophrenic day’s cycling as you pass from barren desert to lush green. No prizes for guessing which I prefer.

I loved Argentina. It is not immediately obvious why this would be the case as neither the riding nor the scenery was as amazing as it was to the north or south. The Argentines however are so friendly that it is hard not to have a good time here. I was invited to stay in several peoples’ houses and was regularly offered food, drink and lifts (which were politely declined).

Coupled with the fact that Argentina is reasonably developed, this makes it a wonderful place to ride after the central Andean countries. One thing that comes as a shock is the siesta. Everything, with the notable exception of ice cream parlours, is closed from about 2 pm till 6 pm or so. That is exactly the time that I usually arrived at the end of a day’s ride – I ate a lot of ice cream. Forget about getting dinner before 8.30 pm at the earliest as well, most Argentines go out for dinner at 11 pm.

On the plus side are the bakeries which provide all manner of cycle-friendly goodies for a song. I still miss my regular bag of 10 mezelunas (a sort of sweet croissant) which could be had for around £1. The towns themselves are pleasant colonial places, inevitably built around a plaza and with plenty of shady trees. They’re welcoming at the end of a long day, but don’t really need more than an evening to enjoy fully.

Uspallata pass

My plan from Mendoza was to cross over the Andes again to Santiago, Chile over the Uspallata pass. had read that this is the most spectacular pass in the Americas and while I wouldn’t go quite that far (there are a lot of them after all), I would say that it is one of the most impressive that I have ridden. Uspallata was used as the location for the filming of Seven Years in Tibet and it is easy to see why, above this point the mountains are bare rock and snow. The top at 3100 m is not really the top at all, the road crosses the border in a tunnel, somewhat akin to the Mont Blanc tunnel. Fortunately, since riding through would be somewhat suicidal, the authorities take bicycles through in a truck. The border is somewhere in the middle so when you arrive on the other side, the scenery is Chilean.

Chile | South America

Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni Camp

Someplace like Bolivia

Andrew and I arrived in Bolivia at the beach resort of Copacabana, not, it must be said quite as fabulous as it’s more famous namesake. The views across Lake Titicaca were stunning however, quite different from the marshy northern end. Somehow, at almost 4000 m up, this was a vista reminiscent of the Aegean.

Copacabana is also proud to be the home of the Bolivian navy, possibly the second most powerful force on the lake. The Bolivians lost their coastline a long time ago in a war with Chile and this is the next best thing.’The sea is ours by right, it is our duty to get it back’ a sign proclaims, although there is no indication as to how this might be achieved.

We took a day tour of Isla del Sol, the most touristy thing it is possible to do here. It was fabulous, a jewel of an island amid the azure waters. In this setting, even waiting for the unacclimatized and unfit members of our group was a delight and it seemed to us, as we sipped a cola with the sun glistening off the lake, that the Bolivians shouldn’t be too disappointed with their lot.

La Paz

Following our standard rule of not riding into major cities if we could help it, we caught a bus to La Paz. A good decision we decided as we descended into the chaos. The other benefit of busing in was that it bought us a day before Andrew flew out in which to do some single track riding with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This really was something special and is a must for any mountain bikers who are passing through.

 Simply getting pegs into the salt was a challenge and I clocked a temperature of -5 °C inside my tent. What a place to wake up though!

Many of the Gravity staff are also ex-tourers themselves and are very helpful in obtaining parts that are unavailable elsewhere in Bolivia. Drop them an email and they’ll get in what you need.

Andrew and I said an emotional goodbye and I was on my own. I wasn’t entirely happy riding through Bolivia totally alone and so I was pleased to meet some English cyclists who agreed to let me ride with them.

Riding south from La Paz was more of the same flat altiplano, but there was a treat in store, in fact the main reason that most cyclists come to Bolivia at all: the Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake in the world and in the dry season (which ends around January), it is possible to ride across it.

Salar de Uyuni

We decided to ride along a road to the north of the lake to the village of Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Villages and roads marked on the map here may or may not exist and so navigation proved tricky. I have a page detailing how to do it in my ‘how to’ section: here.

The salar itself is mindblowing, we spent two nights on it, one on Isla Incahuasi and the other camped on the salt. Incahuasi (also known as Isla Pescadores) is a beautiful cactus-covered lump of rock in the middle of the salt. The views are breathtaking and if you arrive under your own power you can sleep in a room they have on site. There is also an excellent restaurant and some very basic supplies. Best of all, I got to enjoy the island alone at 7 am, before anyone else was up and long before any of the day trippers arrived. Magical.

Camping on the salt is another experience not to be missed although it makes for a considerably less comfortable night. Simply getting pegs into the salt was a challenge and I clocked a temperature of -5 °C inside my tent. What a place to wake up though!

Uyuni to Argentina

I’d heard some excellent things about the north of Argentina and so decided not to take the standard bike tour route across to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Avoiding any more desert riding may have had something to do with it too. I headed for La Quillaca and the border. The road continued with the terrible washboard surface that I’d come to hate and, shortly after the town of Atocha, disappeared altogether.

The route from Atocha follows a semi-dry riverbed (not an unusual surface in these parts) but then goes off on a side track. At some point I clearly took a wrong turn following the sizable track, crossed a 4000 m pass and ended up in a small village.

The freindly inhabitants there didn’t seem particularly suprised to have to tell me that the road I wanted was in another direction entirely. They get a car, bus or cyclist daily and have to redirect them. I wasn’t able to discover whether they are cannily reaping the benefits of selling water and chocolate to lost tourists, or whether they are just too stupid to erect a sign 20 km up the road.

Back over the pass I went and with little other alternative, decided to follow the railway towards Tupiza. This was a novel experience for me since there was often no alternative but to bump over the sleepers. Worse still were the bridges – dragging bike and BOB trailer forty feet above a river and jumping from plank to plank is not something to try at home. Nevertheless, eighty somewhat perilous kilometers and one surprised train driver later, I made it to a more appropriate road. From there it was more terrible washboard (remarkably, some worse than the railway) to civilization!

Argentina | South America

Peru

Near Hualhua

The northern desert – bloody hell!

Almost everyone who visits Peru travels straight to the south. Machu Picchu and Lago Titicaca beckon; we’d be taking rather longer to reach them.

There are two main crossings from Ecuador to Peru and, having spent some time in the mountains, we decided to head down the coast. This coastal strip is a desert and since it is pretty flat we expected to make good time. Mancora, our first town was a delightful one off, a little gem of a beach resort slap in the middle of the desert. It is famed for its waves and attracts international surfers and backpackers alike.

Unfortunately, this was the one enjoyable moment in the following 500 km. One by one we succombed to stomach bugs and to make matters worse, a stiff headwind sprang up daily in the late morning. Riding 80 km in the desert into a headwind, with a high fever is an experience I hope never to repeat. Far from making time during this section, we were actually losing ground. We had to get Will to the airport in Lima and so decided to take a bus from Chiclayo to Chimbote. A brief glance from the window every now and then suggested that we weren’t missing much.

Even without the wind and the illness, I doubt that we’d have enjoyed this section much. Deserts are, by their nature, lifeless. This one even smelled of decay. Mile after identical mile, the Panamericana just continued on its straight route through the sand.

The Cordillera Blanca

Things took a turn for the better in Casma. A beautiful hotel whose English-speaking owner had rather bizzarely studied in Ramsgate, provided lunch. We had intended to continue on our way but the pool proved too much of a draw and we relaxed in the sun.

From here it was 120 km and a 4200 m climb to the Callan Pass and the 30 km descent into Huaraz. The numbers would suggest that this is not an easy climb; in fact, it is the biggest single ascent I’ve ever ridden, slightly trumping the one from Nasca. After around 15 km, the road becomes a dirt-track and it just goes up and up. There are a number of small villages with simple supplies dotted along the route and some of the friendliest Peruvians that I came across all trip.

Andrew and Will got ill again after day one and hitched a ride to Huaraz, leaving me to continue alone. The last 3 or 4 km are interminable as the route zigzags seemingly on the flat with the pass clearly visible just above. Of course, just keep turning the pedals and sooner or later you’ll get there! When you do, you’ll be rewarded with a sight worth waiting for – the Cordillera Blanca stretched out in all its glory. I decided that this was a view to enjoy for a little longer, pitched tent on the ridge and settled down for a cold but unforgettable night.

Huaraz was everything we’d been looking forward to in the desert. Sadly Andrew was still to unwell to take in much more than the fabulous view from our hotel roof, but Will and I made the most of it. We met up with Julio, THE mountain bike guide to the Cordillera Blanca and arranged to go on a singletrack excursion. The muletrack trails criss-crossing the hillside were made by the Incas but seemed purpose-built for mountain biking. A fitting end to Will’s holiday.

The ride south out of Huaraz was truly fabulous despite gaining 1000 m in altitude. Offsetting that is the knowledge that the road is about to take a 4000 m descent in the direction of Lima. At one point on the descent I met some other bike tourists going the other way. Unsurprisingly they were Dutch, and equally unsurprisingly their English was excellent so we had a good exchange of information about the road ahead. I was sorry to have to tell them that I’d just descended 50 km in one hour!

My first trip to Peru, in 2000:

El Misti Southern Peru - We arrived in Arequipa to a purity and, at 2325 m, a paucity of air that was a direct and ...

 

I caught a bus into and out of Lima, a very sensible precaution given the slums surrounding the city. There just seemed no point in riding in an unpleasant and dangerous environment like this – obviously it is different if your plan involves riding the complete distance of something like Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia but I wasn’t so bothered. I’ve met very few experienced cyclists who don’t take buses from time to time.

Nasca to Cusco

This was an incredible route. By far the best road we rode in Peru, and Andrew and I both highly recommend it. It’s not easy though: you begin by riding from about 600 m to 4200 m as a continuous ascent and follow that up by almost daily climbs of 2000 m. We broke the initial climb in Hualhua, camping on the steps of the village school, where bizarrely we were joined by a couple of Australians in a camper van. Their contribution of a bottle of wine livened up proceedings considerably: some fine trail magic.

 It’s not easy though: you begin by riding from about 600 m to 4200 m as a continuous ascent and follow that up by almost daily climbs of 2000 m.

The road is not busy, in fact Andrew, being rather bored, counted the vehicles that passed during the whole of the next day. He reached about 28. The pass tops out at Pampas Galeras, a Vicuña reserve which is home to 70% of the vicuñas in Peru. Vicuñas are the cutest of the camelids with their sleek coats and big brown eyes and they are highly endangered. Their wool is extremely valuable (hence the endangered status) and we later saw a Vicuña wool scarf on sale for $800. The road from Pampas Galeras winds across the altiplano proper and you really do get the feeling of being on top of the world.

Remarkably, given the inhospitable environment and the apparent lack of any shelter, there are people living up here. They seem to be llama herders and presumambly they have huts out of sight of the road. Camping wild, you get some idea of the sort of existance they must have and how hardy they must be. No sooner had we pitched tent on our first bitterly cold night than it started snowing…

Cusco to Lake Titicaca

Cusco is the backpacker centre of South America and it’s easy to see why: Inca history and beautiful landscapes are everywhere. Sadly, so are the other tourists. One of the reasons to travel by bike is to get away from it all and this was being thrown back into it. I had been before and knew that this would be the case; Andrew who hadn’t, obviously wanted to see Machu Picchu and the rest. To get a different perspective, we did a short loop on our bikes down into the sacred valley.

I must say that this was a really nice little tour, and if you were looking for a simple, short bike route in Peru, this could well fit the bill. Pisac and Inca Pisac were particular highlights – though Inca Pisac is not as spectacular as Maccu Picchu, the fact that you can wonder around on your own, and share it with nobody, made it all the more special for us. If you’ve just ridden to Cusco from the north or west, then the road south to Bolivia will seem a piece of cake. It is basically flat and the distances fly by. Unsurprisingly then, this was the first place that we started meeting other cyclists regularly. Titicaca was a dissappointment initially; it looked as if someone had pulled the plug and drained most of the water leaving only a marsh. As we discovered, the really spectacular views are to be had from the Bolivian side. Puno and the floating islands were fun, Juli, despite its billing as the Rome of South America, was not.

Bolivia | South America

Ecuador

Sunset near Zhud

El Mitad del Mundo

Quito is right on the equator, as far north in the Andes as you can get without venturing into Columbia and thus makes an excellent starting point for a journey south. Whilst it may not have the reputation of Columbia for banditry, Quito is nevertheless a dangerous city. This is a place where you are escorted by armed guards to your car and where men openly carry pump-action shotguns. We didn’t linger.

 The sense of awe isn’t really possible to put into words and even the photos don’t do it justice: you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.

We rode south past Cotopaxi volcano, climbing steadily. The gain from 2800 m to 3500 m was tough as we were unacclimatized and, given that we’d got lost on the way out of the city, this was a long day. To make matters worse, on arrival at Cotopaxi National Park, we couldn’t find the promised campsite. Our collective inability to speak any Spanish didn’t help and whilst searching along a railway line in the direction we thought the ranger was pointing, we lost Will. Then it got dark.

This was not the ideal start by any means but fortunately we were able to locate him by torch light. Then a moment of trail magic; the ranger offered us the chance to stay in his cabin.

Ecuador is hilly. These mountains may not be as high as some of those further south in the Andes, but they are a good deal bigger than anything in Europe. The ranges also seem to point in an east-west direction so that the road south climbs then descends, then climbs again, seemingly forever. It was tough going, particularly in our relatively unfit and unacclimatized state but there were some real highlights. Coming around a bend or over a crest and looking out over a huge, ancient landscape is one of those things that makes a trip like this worthwhile. The sense of awe isn’t really possible to put into words and even the photos don’t do it justice: you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.

Southern Ecuador

Cuenca is a beautiful colonial city and after some hard riding, we didn’t need any further excuse to stay for two nights. Andrew’s Spanish was improving rapidly and mine was relatively close behind. Will had not yet learned to say hello…

Food, it must be said was remarkably good and I, being vegetarian, particularly enjoyed locro de papa, a kind of potato soup with a large lump of cheese and a half avocado in it. Avocados were beautiful here, as was most fruit. I didn’t pass up the opportunities to have fresh juices whenever possible – fresh strawberry juice for 50p is perfect! The US dollar is now the currency in Ecuador and though things were pretty cheap, this currency change has meant that it wasn’t the bargain that Peru and Bolivia were.

On the plus side, petrol stations were well stocked with cold Coke and chocolate bars, and frankly, if you can’t get these essentials, being a bargain is no consolation!

We took the road down to the coast from Cuenca, intending to camp after 80 km or so. Unfortunately we found that the roadside at these lower altitudes was lined the with shacks of banana farmers. The banana trees themselves occupied the rest of the available land. We pushed on into the twilight in order to reach Pasaje, the nearest town to the border. Arriving in this god-forsaken place so late, we were at the mercy of the hotel owner who charged us about double what he should have. There was nothing here, nowhere to eat and nothing to do and the whole place had a sinister air – avoid if at all possible! We were delighted to leave despite the light drizzle, not knowing that this was a foretaste what was to come on the coastal Panamericana. For now the huge banana plantations and the thought of reaching Peru today kept us entertained.

Peru | South America